Nadal outlasts teen Alcaraz in 3 sets to go 20-0 on year

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INDIAN WELLS, Calif. — Rafael Nadal faced down the future and emerged victorious, outlasting Spanish teenager Carlos Alcaraz 6-4, 4-6, 6-3 to reach the BNP Paribas Open final and improve to 20-0 this year.

The 21-time major champion threw his head back, smiled and raised both arms in triumph after escaping an aggressive Alcaraz. The 18-year-old never appeared rattled playing his vaunted countryman, who had the crowd, a 17-year advantage in age and loads of experience in his favor.

“He has all the ingredients to become an amazing champion,” Nadal said. “I don’t have many doubts that he will be great. He is already, by the way.”

Nadal’s perfect record is the third-best start to a season since 1990. He’s won titles at Melbourne, the Australian Open and Acapulco.

Nadal will meet Taylor Fritz in the final Sunday. Seeded 20th, Fritz is the first American man to make the final since John Isner in 2012 and he’ll try to be the first to win the title since Andre Agassi in 2001.

Fritz ended No. 7 seed Andrey Rublev’s 13-match winning streak with a 7-5, 6-4 victory in the other semifinal. The Russian had won 13 consecutive matches since Feb. 14, including back-to-back titles at Marseille and Dubai.

Nadal staved off three break points on his serve in the fifth game of the third set and then broke Alcaraz with a forehand volley winner to go up 5-3. Nadal served out the match with a love game, punctuating the 3-hour, 12-minute struggle with a 95-mph ace.

“Rafa has thousand lives,” Alcaraz said. “If he’s down, he’s able to play at a great level in the tough moments.”

Alcaraz hit 39 winners to 20 for Nadal. The teen saved 15 of the 20 break points he faced through the first two sets, but couldn’t stop the net-rushing Nadal who broke him to go up 4-3.

That’s when Nadal called for a trainer, who appeared to give the soon-to-be 36-year-old star an adjustment. Nadal said he was feeling pain in his left chest.

Ranked 19th in the world, Alcaraz outdueled Nadal in a second set that featured five service breaks, including four in a row.

Tied 4-all, Alcaraz broke Nadal in a game that lasted 19 minutes, 42 seconds. Nadal’s errant forehand gave Alcaraz the advantage on the seventh break point of the game. The teenager tossed up a topspin lob near the baseline that Nadal could not catch up to and Alcaraz led 5-4. He served out the set, 6-4.

“If you are playing with Rafa, you have to be calm, you have to think well in the tough moments,” Alcaraz said. “That’s what I learned in this match.”

Alcaraz got Nadal’s attention from the start, breaking him in the first game of the match. The teen survived a six-deuce game on his serve to go up 2-0. Alcaraz was gutsy throughout, charging the net on break points and often coming up with winners.

“I feel like I’m part of that level. I am part of these kind of players,” Alcaraz said. “I think I’m going to play against Rafa or the best players this year a lot.”

As the match went on, the wind grew so strong it blew the players’ white towels nearly onto the court and rattled Nadal’s perfectly aligned drink bottles that he set facing the court. Ball kids chased items that weren’t anchored down. Nadal said his eyes hurt because of sand stirred up by the wind.

In the first semifinal, Fritz came out strongly in front of a supportive crowd at the tournament where he’s been coming since he was a kid from his home near San Diego. He served a love game to open the match and then promptly broke Rublev and held again for a 3-0 lead.

“I was not the favorite in today’s match and so I was able to play a little freer,” said Fritz, a semifinalist here five months ago when the event was held in October because of the COVID-19 pandemic. “Everything was definitely flowing for me.”

Fritz held at love to go up 4-1. He had a chance to serve out the first set leading 5-2, but the Rublev won the next three games to tie it, 5-all.

Fritz took a 6-5 lead with a 112-mph ace. He broke the big-hitting Rublev after a seven-deuce game to win the set.

The Russian reacted by hitting a ball into the sky and repeatedly punching his racket strings with his right fist. Rublev needed a medical timeout before the start of the second set to tend to a bloodied hand. He later said he hurt his hand “a little bit.”

In the second set, Fritz came up with a big hold at 5-4, firing an ace down the T after fighting off two break points. The men stayed on serve until the 10th game.

Rublev saved eight of the 11 break points he faced, but he missed an easy forehand volley on top of the net to give Fritz his first match point. Fritz bashed a return of Rublev’s serve to take the pivotal break and the match.

“I was just like so much relief and I just couldn’t believe it,” Fritz said. “Those moments are the reason why I wanted to be an athlete, wanted to play professional tennis. It’s the best part of it all.”

Rybakina, Sabalenka to meet in Australian Open women’s final

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Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
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MELBOURNE, Australia — What all seemed so different, so daunting, even, about trying to win a Grand Slam title to Elena Rybakina a little more than six months ago is now coming rather naturally.

And if she can win one more match, she will add a championship at the Australian Open to the one she collected at Wimbledon.

Rybakina, a 23-year-old who represents Kazakhstan, reached her second final in a span of three major tournaments by beating Victoria Azarenka 7-6 (4), 6-3 at Melbourne Park on Thursday, signaling a rapid rise toward the top of tennis.

“Everything was new at Wimbledon,” Rybakina said after hitting nine aces in the semifinals to raise her tournament-leading total to 44. “Now I more or less understand what to expect.”

That could come in handy Saturday, when she will face No. 5 seed Aryna Sabalenka of Belarus. Sabalenka reached her first Grand Slam title match at age 24 by beating unseeded Magda Linette 7-6 (1), 6-2 in Thursday’s second semifinal.

Sabalenka improved to 10-0 in 2023, winning all 20 sets she has contested this season.

More importantly, the victory over Linette gave Sabalenka her first taste of success in a Slam semi after going 0-3 at that stage until now, losing each previous attempt by a 6-4 score in the third set.

Rybakina and Sabalenka employ a somewhat similar brand of tennis, relying on big serves and big hitting at the baseline. Sabalenka is far less cautious, though, and her penchant for high-risk, high-reward play was evident against Linette, who had never before been past the third round in 29 appearances at majors.

Sabalenka finished with a whopping 33-9 edge in winners, but also compiled more unforced errors – including a trio that led to a break at love by Linette in the opening game.

The key to both semifinals turned out to be a first-set tiebreaker. Azarenka lost the mark on her strokes, for the most part, making things smoother for Rybakina, while Sabalenka raced to a 6-0 lead in hers. It wasn’t the case that each and every shot Sabalenka hit landed right on a line, but it must have seemed that way to Linette.

“In the tiebreaker, I really found my rhythm,” Sabalenka said. “Started trusting myself. Started going for my shots.”

Rybakina’s win over Azarenka, the champion at Melbourne Park in 2012 and 2013, added to what already was an impressive run through a string of top opponents. She also beat No. 1 Iga Swiatek and No. 17 Jelena Ostapenko – both owners of major titles – and 2022 Australian Open runner-up Danielle Collins.

“For sure, they’re very experienced players,” said Rybakina, whose parents and sister have been in town throughout the Australian Open. “I knew that I have to focus on every point.”

She delivered serves at up to 117 mph (189 kph) and stinging groundstrokes that she used to close points seemingly at will on Thursday. Her performance was particularly noteworthy against a returner and defender as established on hard courts as Azarenka, a former No. 1 and a three-time runner-up at the U.S. Open.

“Kind of hard to digest,” Azarenka said. “Obviously, I had quite a few chances that I gave myself.”

Rybakina is just 23, 10 years younger than Azarenka, and the future sure looks bright at the moment.

Rybakina might be seeded just 22nd in Melbourne, and ranked just 25th, but those numbers are rather misleading and not indicative at all of her talent and form. She did not get the usual bump from her title last July at Wimbledon, where zero rankings points were awarded after the All England Club banned players from Russia and Belarus because of the invasion of Ukraine.

Rybakina was born in Moscow; she switched to Kazakhstan in 2018, when that country offered to fund her tennis career.

It was breezy and chilly at Rod Laver Arena from the start of Rybakina vs. Azarenka, with the temperature dipping below 70 degrees Fahrenheit (20 degrees Celsius).

That had a role in the way the first set was as much of a seesaw as can be, with each player seeming to gain the upper hand – and then ceding it just as quickly. Both found the conditions slowed down the tennis balls.

“Kind of misjudged a lot of balls,” Azarenka said.

Rybakina encountered similar issues and her occasional inconsistency was encapsulated by the very first game. She began, inauspiciously enough, with a double-fault, before holding with the help of three aces.

Azarenka nosed ahead by breaking for a 3-2 lead on a leaping, full-extension volley winner with both women at the net. Rybakina, though, broke right back, and then once more to go up 5-3.

Azarenka saved a set point at 5-3 with a terrific down-the-line forehand passing shot, wound up taking the game with a backhand she accented with a shout of “Let’s go!”

A mistake-filled tiebreaker ended with Azarenka pushing a forehand wide to cap an 11-shot exchange, and the set belonged to Rybakina. She broke at love for a 2-1 lead in the second, and while they competed for another 25 minutes, the outcome was never really much in doubt.

Sure, Rybakina again faltered for a bit while trying to serve out the victory at 5-2. No one expected Azarenka to go quietly. But one last break, aided by a double-fault from Azarenka, allowed Rybakina to take another step toward another trophy.

“Ready,” she said, “to give everything I have left.”

Paul, McDonald on US Davis Cup team; Nainkin interim captain

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Mike Frey/USA TODAY Sports
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WHITE PLAINS, N.Y. — Australian Open semifinalist Tommy Paul and the player who eliminated Rafael Nadal at Melbourne Park, Mackenzie McDonald, are among the players picked by interim captain David Nainkin for the U.S. Davis Cup team’s matches at Uzbekistan next week.

Nainkin’s appointment was announced Friday, three weeks after Mardy Fish’s tenure as captain ended.

Nainkin has been with the U.S. Tennis Association since 2004. He will be assisted against Uzbekistan by Dean Goldfine, who coached 20-year-old Ben Shelton during his quarterfinal run at the Australian Open.

Paul beat Shelton in that round before losing to Novak Djokovic on Friday night.

The other members of the U.S. roster are Denis Kudla, Rajeev Ram and Austin Krajicek. Kudla replaces Jenson Brooksby on the team.

The matches will be played on indoor hard courts on Feb. 3-4.